Walt's Women: Two Forgotten Influences

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Walt's Women: Two Forgotten Influences

"He (Walt Disney) lived surrounded by women. Besides Lilly and the two daughters and the cook, there was often a female relative living with the Disneys. Walt complained wryly that even the family pets were female. But his grumblings seemed half-hearted. He appreciated feminity, and he liked to play the role of the father."

    – Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original

I don't think Walt gets enough credit as a feminist. By that, I mean that Walt had no problems having women in positions of authority and influence at the Disney Studio during a time when most women were limited to minor roles in business. Whether it was Mary Blair, Harriet Burns or Retta Scott, women were very influencial at the Disney Studio.

One of the many paradoxes of Walt was that while he was generally shy around women, he seemed quite comfortable around strong women. Two of the strongest women in Walt's life saw him nearly every day of his life, and don't get enough recognition for the positive influence they directly had on Walt.

Thelma Howard was the Disney live-in housekeeper and cook for 30 years beginning in 1951. Her nickname was "Foo-Foo," and Walt referred to her as "the real-life Mary Poppins." She died just before her 80th birthday, on June 10, 1994.

Thelma Howard has actually been described as having been more like the maid "Hazel" than like "Mary Poppins" because she was much more gruff than a spoonful of sweetness. Like Walt, she loved to smoke. She also loved to play gin rummy, and she was accepted fully as a part of the Disney family.

"She was a combination of real loving and kind of crusty," said Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, "...a chain-smoking, no-nonsense type, but very loving, like TV's old 'Hazel' character."

She had her share of tragedy in her early life. Her mother died in childbirth when Thelma was just 6 years old, and her sister died in a fire in their kitchen years later. Like Walt, she was from the Midwest. Thelma was a native of Southwick, Idaho.

Thelma was a perfectionist who would make sure that the fridge was always filled with hot dogs, because when Walt came home from work, he'd like to grab a couple. He'd give one to his pet poodle, and eat the other two himself even though they were cold and uncooked.

Despite acknowledging that Thelma was a great cook, Walt would often try to get her to visit Biff's, a restaurant near the Disney Studio, to try and duplicate some of their offerings. Grudgingly, she would make the trip.

On Thelma's days off, Walt and Lilly would go out to eat, usually at the Tam O'Shanter or the Brown Derby.

Walt's grandchild Chris Miller said, "My grandfather had an incredible rapport with her. They seemed to share everything, from a sense of humor to their notions about what was happening with the kids and what was best for them."

Walt felt very comfortable joking with her and teasing her and reportedly, Thelma was quite capable of giving as good as she got.

When she started as a housekeeper for the Disney family in 1951 at the age of 38, she'd get a few shares of Disney stock as a Christmas gift as well as for birthdays and special events. She lived frugally throughout her life, apparently not knowing the rising value of the stock actually made her a multi-millionaire at the time of her death.

She left nearly four and a half million dollars to poor and disabled children as well as nearly the same amount to her son, Michael. He was an only child from Thelma's brief marriage. At the time of her death, he was in his mid-50s and in a home for developmentally disabled.

"She was told to hang onto it, and she did. She never sold a share of it," said Jack Shakely, president of the California Community Foundation, which assists the Thelma Pearl Foundation in dispensing the money. "I don't think she knew what it was worth. She had great faith in the Disneys and wouldn't part with it."

Thelma's health took a turn for the worse in 1981, so she retired. She was buried in Forest Lawn and her grave overlooks the Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The foundation that bears her name has given out over one million dollar in grants since 1995.

"I guess there isn't any sucker bigger than the one who sounds off about the fair sex," moaned Walt when during an interview he was chastized for suggesting that women don't have a sense of humor. In fact, he stopped bringing Disney films home to screen for his family because he said that Lilly and Thelma didn't "laugh loudly enough" during them.

Another strong woman in Walt's life was the Disney Studio nurse, Hazel George.

Walt's old polo injury resulted in considerable pain. Sometimes he wasn't even able to bend to get into his car. In a room next to Walt's office, a room Walt called his "laughing place," studio nurse Hazel applied hot packs and traction every evening, usually after 5:00, to ease the pain.

He spent this time to use Hazel as a sounding board for his plans, as well as to exchange gossip as he unwound from the pressures of the day. Often times, Walt would get philosophical, but Hazel's sharp wit never let him get maudlin.

"After I die, I would hate to look down at this studio and find everything in a mess," Walt moaned as he was getting his nightly massage.

"What makes you think you won't be using a periscope?" she replied.

"Smartass," Walt muttered under his breath as he lay there.

Another time after she had deflated another of his stories, Walt said, "You know what my next project is going to be? An audio-animatronic nurse."

Hazel claimed in an interview that "Walt was more at ease with women than he was with men." He certainly was very much at ease with Hazel and appreciated her honesty and outspokenness. He also appreciated her discretion since during his sessions with her, he became very vulnerable and opened himself up in a way he didn't with others. Even after his death, Hazel was discreet about what Walt shared in those sessions.

Born Hazel Gilman on February 21, 1904 in Bisbee, Cochise County, Arizona, she was the oldest of three children. Her father was a copper miner. Perhaps due to the labor uprisings against copper miners in the area when she was 13, she ended up a ward of the juvenile court.

A brief marriage in 1928 resulted in a daughter and the quick disappearance of Mr. George. By 1930, Hazel was living with her divorced mother and younger brother in Los Angeles. She eventually graduated from a nursing college, and was later hired by the Disney Studio during the infamous strike of 1941.

"I felt that Walt's greatest talent was recognizing the potential in others," said George in an interview shortly before her death. "He really sought to bring out the best in people, whether they were artists, story people or accountants. He personally went through every day's work at the Studio. He didn't just ask someone how things were going. He found out himself. He was a very hard worker and a wonderful man. He encouraged me to get into writing lyrics for music at the Studio, as he knew that I wasn't really using my college degree in literature as a nurse. So I did, and he loved my writing. Walt was a special man, even today, I have a lot to thank him for."

Under the pseudonym "Gil George," she co-wrote over 90 songs for Disney. Her work included songs for films like The Light in the Forest, Perri, Tonka, Westward Ho the Wagons, and Old Yeller. She was also a frequent contributor to the television shows including the original Disneyland show, Zorro, and the original Mickey Mouse Club. For the Mickey Mouse Club, she was responsible for the song for Talent Roundup, the Corky and White Shadow serial, and several of the Jimmie Dodd "Doddisms" among other contributions. She was a lyricist, collaborating mainly with her long-time companion, studio composer Paul Smith, but also worked with George Bruns and Jimmie Dodd occasionally to write songs for the Mickey Mouse Club show.

Incredibly, her contributions to the musical heritage of Disney are often overlooked in the various books and articles devoted to Disney music. In addition, her influence in the creation of Disneyland has never been fully explored.

Hazel was the one who suggested that Walt go to the Chicago Railroad Fair with Ward Kimball. When Walt was considering building his "Mickey Mouse Park" across the street from the Disney Studio, Hazel became the head of the Disneyland Boosters and Backers Club to raise contributions from the studio employees for the project. This project helped convince Roy Disney to lend his support to Walt's dream.

Hazel's songwriting career seems to have ended when Paul Smith retired in 1962 although as a nurse, she continued treating Walt right up until he went into St. Joseph's Hospital. Supposedly, she was the one who had mentioned to Walt about cryonics, sparking his interest in the topic.

Hazel passed away on March 12, 1996 (10 years after the death of Paul Smith, whom she cared for in his final years) and fortunately several oral interviews with her survive, although they currently remain unpublished. Bob Thomas, who authored the biography Walt Disney: An American Original, acknowledged that she provided him with the key to understanding Walt' personality.

"One thing that I learned from my long time friendship with Walt was that in most cases, he was strongly motivated by love," remembered Hazel. "He loved his family very much, and would tell me about his daughters' exploits, and about his wife Lilly. He really loved them dearly, and enjoyed telling me all the wonderful stories of what they were doing. He also loved kids in general and animals, especially his own little dog. He would often tell me stories about that wonderful little poodle. He never got tired of talking about animals."

While Paul Smith is a Disney Legend, Hazel is long overdue for consideration for that same honor.